Alaska is an enormous and diverse state with a wide range of weather, landscapes and activities! There are some specific things to think about no matter where you’re going to visit, or even what time of year! I lived in Alaska for seven years in Fairbanks (dry, extreme cold in winter and super hot in summer) and Skagway (wet, more mild, very wet in winter).
In this post, I’ll talk about some things to consider when deciding what to pack for Alaska. Note: this list does not include camping gear, if you’re doing a backcountry trip or a camping trip read my guide for camping in Alaska here. If you’re planning a trip to Alaska, check out these posts about the best things to do in Alaska, best places to eat in Alaska, riding the Alaska ferry, and visiting Alaska national parks.
Things to consider when packing for Alaska
How much can you bring?
When planning what to pack for Alaska, the first thing is to think about how much luggage you can bring on your trip. If you’re traveling a lot of different places, taking planes, trains and automobiles, you may need a lighter packing list than someone who is traveling on a cruise ship and bus tour. If you’re going to more than one place on your own, I’d consider bringing what you can pack in a carry on bag. This is easy to carry and reduces the likelihood of losing your bags!
All the items on my packing list for Alaska I can fit into a carry on size bag (except for my big winter coat and snowpants, but you won’t need those unless you go to the interior part of Alaska in winter). I usually pack enough for a few days and plan on doing laundry at some point, which also helps in packing light. Alaska is a casual place, similar to the Pacific Northwest so you don’t need a dressy outfit unless you want one.
Alaska is a state with very different temperatures winter and summer, and very different within winter and summer in different areas. Do research to understand what to expect for the temperature in the part of the state you’ll be visiting and the time of year. For example, Southeast Alaska is extremely wet in winter, and while they definitely get snow, they don’t always have it all winter. In Fairbanks, temperatures way below zero are common from November through February or March.
Another important thing to consider in what to pack is the hours of daylight. In the summer, all of the state has long days, ranging from 18 hours in Ketchikan to the sun not setting at all above the Arctic Circle. Similarly, in the winter months there are far fewer hours of daylight. In March and September, there are about 12 hours of daylight just like everywhere else on earth around the equinox.
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What to pack for Alaska in Summer
Summer can be quite warm (up to the 80s or occasionally even the 90s in the interior). It can also be cold and rainy. Bugs are a dominant feature of Alaska summer so I recommend having a hat with a brim for a headnet as well as light weight long pants and a long shirt. These things are helpful for bug and sun protection. When the sun is out it’s really intense!
This is my personal packing list for Alaska in the summer:
- Medications, over the counter and prescriptions
- Toiletries (I keep it simple and I encourage you to as well!)
- Underwear and socks (light wool socks are ideal since they stay warm when wet)
- Lounging clothes: whatever you like to wear around your cabin, hotel or vacation rental in evenings and mornings (or pajamas). I bring leggings, t-shirt and a hoodie.
- Analog entertainment: you’ll likely be in places without access to the internet or a cell phone signal. You also might spend a lot of hours on airplanes, ferries or trains so having reading material, art supplies or a deck of cards is a great idea! I am a big fan of the Kindle paperwhite, because you can bring endless reading material in something lightweight and durable (and the battery lasts a long time in airplane mode). It also has a built in light for reading in the dark (life changing!) but it doesn’t really light up like a screen.
- Waterbottle: I love this one, it keeps cold things cold and hot things hot and has a million awesome colors!
- Bug spray and a headnet: Pretty much all of Alaska has intense bugs in the summer! This is a pretty easy thing to pick up once you get there, so don’t stress about packing it if you don’t already have it.
- Essential phone accessories: In addition to your charger, I highly recommend bringing a back up power supply for your phone. In remote areas without service phone batteries die fast, especially when you’re taking lots of photos and videos. I have this one which adds three extra charges to my phone which is pretty amazing! I also carry this phone tripod and waterproof pouch for my phone so I can do anything!
- An eye mask can be really helpful for sleeping during daylight that lasts 24 hours a day!
- A headlamp – if it’s late May through July you won’t need this except in southeast Alaska. In southeast Alaska at that time it will get dark for a couple of hours
- Durable snacks: I’m not a fan of bars, but I always bring some because on long trips it’s nice to be able to have a snack with you, especially in more remote areas
- Sunglasses and sunscreen – when the sun comes out in Alaska, it’s intense!
- Hat: This is my favorite hat for summer because it’s lightweight and protects your face from the sun as well as keeping rain off it. It also has holes for your sunglasses and it comes in a million colors. You can wear a headnet over it too. You might consider a warm wool hat or fleece hat especially if you’re camping or going to the arctic
- Hiking pants: I love the Columbia Saturday Trail pants and they are great pants to pack for Alaska! (Get them here on Amazon or here at REI). They are great for hikes in hot weather. They are really good for plus size women and have sizes up to 24. They are also terrific for bug protection and you can cinch them up to capris if you like. If you’re hiking in Alaska in the summer, you need to be ready for hot sun or drenching rain. I’d love to tell you you could plan on one or the other but it just isn’t true! Read more about my recommendations for hiking pants for curvy and plus size women here.
- Leggings: I love these leggings. They don’t slide down, they have awesome pockets and they are fairly warm. These are a good option for hiking or walking around on wet days, and they are also a great option to wear underneath rain pants so they don’t get too clammy. Great for plus sized women and they are true to size. Note that leggings do not provide much bug protection since they fit tight against your skin (wear the hiking pants instead or layer rain pants over them).
- Rain pants: I hate them and I almost never wear them, I just get so hot wearing them! However I always bring them especially to Southeast Alaska and especially for camping. They are perfect for hanging around in camp if it’s wet or if it has been raining recently and the ground is wet. They also make for excellent bug protection. These REI ones are the best ones I’ve found (also in plus sizes!)
- Long sleeve light weight shirt – this comes in really handy for sun protection as well as bug protection. I’m not usually a fan of button up shirts but I often wear them unbuttoned and they’re pretty comfortable that way. My favorite button up sun and bug shirt is this one that you can get here on Amazon (also in plus sizes) and here at REI (also in plus sizes)
- T shirt or tank top: It can get hot in Alaska in the summer so I always bring a couple of short sleeved or sleeveless tops
- Swimsuit – For hot springs, hot tubs and lakes!
- Long sleeve base layer: This is a great option to layer under a rainjacket without being too hot! You can use any long sleeve workout shirt you already have.
- Warm layer: I suggest a fleece jacket (like this one at Amazon or REI) or a light puffy jacket any time of year. One that can get wet and still be warm (synthetic not down) is a good idea.
- Rain Jacket: You absolutely need an excellent rain jacket!! This is my current one and I adore it. In addition to protection from the rain this jacket is also excellent protecting against bug bites!
- Boots: These rubber boots are amazing (and adorable!!) and I hike in them all the time. You could just bring hiking boots (see the next bullet) but rubber boots are even better.
- Waterproof shoes: I’ve mentioned before that I don’t wear hiking boots and wear hiking shoes instead (get them here on Amazon or here at REI). If you prefer hiking boots, then bring those!
- Sandals: I suggest bringing sandals for warm days with less bugs or for wearing in the water. I am a fan of chacos because they’re lightweight and comfortable to walk in. Get them here on Amazon or here at REI.
- The other 10 essentials, if you plan on hiking. Here is my list of what I wear and what I bring on day hikes in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
What to Pack for Alaska in Winter
The most important thing about deciding what to pack for Alaska in winter is determining if you’re going to a place that’s predominantly wet (southeast Alaska) or predominantly cold (Anchorage and especially Fairbanks). Make sure to still bring light clothes since buildings are often super hot in Alaska in the winter! Keep the tank top and throw in some shorts for hot indoor spaces.
In Southeast Alaska, winter temperatures often hover around freezing to a bit above or below. You may encounter plenty of snow or rain. In Fairbanks and the Interior including Denali National Park, the temperature stays below zero for many months. Anchorage and southcentral Alaska is somewhere in between. It frequently gets below zero, but more often is in the single digits and teens.
My personal packing list for Alaska in winter includes all of the items on the summer packing list EXCEPT:
- Bug Spray and Headnet
- Summer Hat
- Summer Hiking Pants
- Long Sleeve Light weight shirt
Additional Items to Pack for Alaska in Winter
Take out the rain pants (unless you’re going to Southeast Alaska, then keep the rainpants) and add:
- Warm wool hat: The one in the summer packing list is great, just make sure you have it!
- Jeans: It sounds a little silly but your favorite jeans will serve you well in Alaska in winter! Make sure you have the snow pants to wear if you’re outside for awhile when it’s really cold.
- Snow pants: Make sure to have really warm snow pants for Southcentral and Interior Alaska (Anchorage and Fairbanks) in winter. These are my current favorite (plus size here)!
- Gloves and Mittens: the type of gloves will vary greatly depending on your preferences. These are the ones I wear most often, they are fairly light allowing you to still use your hands and they have pads so you can use a phone with them on. You’ll also want mittens or mitts to wear over them. When it’s really cold you need mittens but sometimes you have to take the off and you’ll want light gloves underneath. These are fantastic waterproof mittens for layering. If you already have gloves and mittens you love, just bring those!
- Buff: Having something to pull up over your nose and mouth is helpful when it’s really cold. It can also function as a scarf or headband. Get it here on Amazon or here at REI
- Really warm puffy down or synthetic coat that’s LONG and has a hood. This REI one is affordable, super comfortable and very warm! It’s also super packable into it’s own pocket which is wonderful since winter gear can be so bulky.
- Warm Boots: I love these Sorel boots, they are incredibly comfortable and warm and good for walking long distances. They are also waterproof around the rubber bottom, which is nice for coming indoors with wet feet and having snow melt on everything!
What to Pack for An Alaska Cruise
If you’re traveling to Alaska on a cruise, then you’ll be visiting in the summer. If it’s May or September expect colder temperatures (especially in September).
You don’t really need to bring anything different than what I recommend to pack for Alaska in summer!
Many cruise ships offer an opportunity for formal dining, and if you enjoy dressing up bringing a dressy outfit can be fun! This is never required on the ship, so if you don’t enjoy it you don’t have to do it.